There are many waymarkers along the winding trail of a man's life, but few can be quite so dismal, so minatory, so like unto a psychic gibbet from which a rotting corpse twists in the mephitic breezes from the nearby abyss as logging on to the Clarks website to look for a comfortable pair of walking shoes. "How did it come to this?"
I asked myself as I examined critically the Storm Walls, the Rangle Mixes and the Fall Proofs (need I mention that each of these shoe models is also appended "GTX"? How ineffably sad is that? It's as if middle-aged men were boy-racing towards the grave in sensible footwear) before settling on a pair of the hideously named but achingly suitable Rockie Los (GTX).
I - I! - who for years had near furled my feet in order to feed them into suede winkle-pickers; I - I! - who had once fallen asleep in an overheated Vienna hotel room wearing patent leather Chelsea boots of such exemplary snugness that when I awoke I'd contracted a vicious fungal infection that tormented me for the next decade. I! - well, you get the point: I used to be a hipster, but now I can see the hip-replacement approaching at a brisk limp.
But before I clicked the "Add to Order" button I did something still sadder than buying a pair of Clarks shoes: I read the reviews that other Rockie Lo purchasers had posted on the site. Who does such a thing? Who has either the time or the inclination to write a shoe review? Is there some lost cohort of the Trollopian clerisy, who spend the mildewed years of their reclusion tapping out these clap-happy analyses: "Probably the most comfortable pair of shoes I have ever had, well made and keep your feet dry in very wet conditions. I wear them for work and needed smart and durable shoes, they fully meet my requirements. Highly recommended"? Or so contended Stephen from Barrow-in-Furness, who I pictured wearing a mildewed cassock as he crouched over his laptop.
Still more deranging was the small button at the foot of this screed labelled "Inappropriate? - Report this". I mean, to write a shoe review at all is perverse, but to write an inappropriate shoe review, that way madness lies - and besides, what could such a thing be like? "Your Malone Class grey leather shoe is almost unspeakably arousing . . . No sooner had I opened the box and seen my new pair lying there, soixante-neuf, tongue to upper, than I reached for the tube of lube and eased my trousers off my potbelly . . ." Or possibly: "Your Talon Mid men's sport boots are a must for any fedayee who seriously wishes to take the jihad to the infidel, the heels are large enough to conceal several ounces of Semtex or other explosives, while the Velcro fastening means that the shoes can be speedily removed in the event of an abortive mission . . ."
I wondered quite how vigilant the webmasters at Clarks were; how long could I get away with posting inappropriate shoe reviews before the cyber-police arrived and hauled me a way like some still weirder version of Julian Assange? I idly considered marking out a portion of each day to doing just this - and why stop at inappropriate shoe reviews? I could also comment outrageously on oven gloves, children's toys, medical supplies; anything, indeed, that caught my fancy. But then it occurred to me: there's a big crowd of nutters who are doing just that.
While the abuses, bullying and all-round lunacy of social networking are well attested to, to my mind the more homely realm of shoe reviewing is just as bonkers. In the sphere of political comment, the web replaces the nuanced analyses of those who have thought long and hard with the jaundiced ejaculations of saloon-bar bores who don't even have the balls to show their face.
In the world of books, the typographic bile of illiterates who've yet to learn to spell or punctuate achieves equal billing with the opinions of William Empson. Just as with the madness of calling the PM "Dave", so the posting of comments on the web represents a reaction against the loathed "cult of the professional", setting up in its stead an equally deranged "cult of the amateur".
So, I took Stephen of Barrow's comments with a pinch of salt and hied me to my nearest branch of Clarks, where I was ably assisted by that professional anachronism: a salesman. Rockie on. l
Will Self's next column runs in the 10 January issue of the NS